Bill Cunningham’s first love was fashion, but the Big Apple came a close second. He left Boston for New York aged nineteen, losing his family’s support, but enjoying the infinite luxury of freedom. Living on a scoop of Ovaltine a day, he would run down to Fifth Avenue to feed on the spectacular sights of the window displays – then run back to his tiny studio to work all night.
Working as ‘William J’ - to spare his parents’ blushes - Bill became one of the most celebrated hat designers of the 1950s, his hats were featured in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. Bill’s mission was to bring happiness by making beautiful things – even if it meant pawning his bike to fund fancy-dress outfits for all his friends.
When women stopped wearing hats and his business was forced to close, Bill worked as a fashion journalist, touring the couture houses of Europe. But New York remained his home, and it was as a street photographer of the fashions of the city that he became well known, in a job that would last almost forty years.
Fashion Climbing is the enchanting memoir he left behind. Found after passing away in June 2016 aged 87, it captures the madcap times of his early career and the fashion scene of the mid-century. Written with the spark and wit of Holly Golightly, and brimming over with Bill’s infectious joy for life, it is a gift to all who seek beauty, whatever our style or status.
Left - Fashion Climbing - Bill Cunningham - £16.99
TheChicGeek says, “We don’t have the same affection for Bill on this side of the pond as the Americans, but we know him from the 2010 documentary ‘Bill Cunningham New York’, charting his life as a street style photographer for The New York Times. (I probably need to watch this again soon).
One thing to point out about this autobiography is, it doesn’t touch on his later life as a photographer. It focuses only on his early years, moving from a hat designer to fashion journalist and ends in the late 1960s.
Bill leaves his conservative Irish catholic family in Boston, who tried to curtail his creativity, via a job at department store Bonwit’s and on to New York. Bill finds himself making hats and using his imagination during the heyday of Dior’s ‘New Look’ and America’s obsession with following Paris’ lead.
Bill takes us back to a time when people applauded at fashion shows and not the one handed clap while social media-ing you get today. As delicate a bird as one of his favourite feathered creations, Cunningham projects himself as an outsider purely driven by the love of fashion. He’s exasperated by the social climbing and the following of fashion of women during this part of the 20th century.
This is America at the height of its power. Post war and the golden age of the American dream, this autobiography works through the decades when America peaked and was a powerhouse of fashion consumption and was its biggest patron. Bill must surely be the only man to combine time in the American army while sitting frow at Parisian couture houses.
This is a fun read, and, while it feels exaggerated, it is endearing and is an amusing look at America trying to find its fashion feet. Bill isn’t particularly modest though and wants to continually remind you how individual and original he is. At one point he proclaims he’s ten years ahead of fashion and how nobody gets him. Nobody wants to be ten years ahead of fashion, plus you’d think somebody would have moved into something other than hats faster if you were so ahead of your time.
The hat business dries up and he starts to use his expertise documenting the latest fashion shows and writing fashion articles for WWD. He certainly doesn't have many positive things to say about the fashion press and notes how badly dressed they mostly are.
The book charts his struggle, particularly financially, but you get a feeling his family have more money than he lets on and his uncle sounds very wealthy.
What’s interesting in the book is how things are so different, yet the same. His talk of fashion shows isn’t far off of the circus today. But, fashion has changed and that breathless wait for the next creation from a chosen designer doesn’t ring true anymore. We look, yes, but they no longer have the power with people following sheep-like.
For many, at this time, fashion is a vehicle for social standing, climbing and showing their wealth and his eyerolling at those who just use clothes for these purposes isn’t disguised. He wants them to just enjoy it for what it is, but, you can only do this if you understand fashion, and very few people truly do.
This is the Mad Men New York of parties in hotel ballrooms, social gatherings and peacocking. This is America at its most formal, yet still shows how conservative they are and yet with all the money. They would never buy anything that original or daring and that still rings true today.
This is a lite and inspiring read for anybody who gets excited about vintage fashion, women with cinched in waists and full skirts, Parisian fashion salons of the 1950s and bouji New York beach resorts."
Read more ChicGeek Fashion Book Reviews here
While we like our homegrown style icons in Britain, it would be hard not to appreciate and acknowledge the legacy Elvis Presley has ingrained on our male style psyche. Albeit in a karaoke, stage-costume type of way, like all great musicians he could carry off even the most OTT of outfits due to his talent and stage presence.
Left - Book cover. That famous quiff
Zoey Goto’s new book on Elvis, Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits celebrates the style-world of Elvis Presley - ‘the man who singlehandedly changed the way that America, and much of the world beyond, dressed’.
Elvis Style includes over 175 photos, many of which show rarely seen before Elvis-worn garments, interiors and cars from the King’s extensive private collection.
Zoey says “I first became interested in Presley around 15 years ago, when I was flicking though a magazine and came across a photo of Elvis - who was, and still is, the most visually stunning person I had ever seen. From that point onwards I was hooked. I speedily booked a ticket to Memphis to visit Elvis' hometown and shortly after wrote an academic paper on Graceland's interiors, which later gave rise to the idea of my Elvis Style: From Zoot Suits to Jumpsuits book.
Right - Elvis melting in his black leather jumpsuit
“I was really surprised to see how little had been written about Elvis from a fashion & design perspective, as he has had such a huge cultural influence. I think there are very few icons who have had, and continue to have, such a direct influence on our aesthetic world. When I'm walking down the street in London, I am always clocking Elvis' influence on the way men style themselves - from quiffs and rockabilly revival, to the way we use cultural appropriation in our dress,” she says.
Left - Elvis' gold suit, once owned by Elton John
Right - Elvis influence? The western neck tie Gucci pre-fall 2016
TheChicGeek says, “‘Elvis would rather shop than eat’. Who knew! Elvis encapsulates the pinnacle of American culture, the 1950s, and then later the showy, kitsch and glamour of old Vegas. This book covers not just his clothes, but hair, food, cars, houses and even planes. Elvis is basically America of the 20th century manifested into a strikingly beautiful man. The time when bigger was best in American culture and over indulgence was encouraged, which, ultimately, lead to his tragic and early downfall. People of a certain age remember Elvis, for us younger ones this book gives an entertaining and informative refresh into what made him so special. With a simple flick of the collar one can instantly recognise the influence he had on menswear.”
Right - Elvis' tiger suit (1970s)
Below - Elvis influence? Gucci spring 2016
www.elvisstylebook.com / #ElvisStyleBook